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Echoes of a vanishing Iowa landscape

By Staff | Nov 3, 2017

Seven days, seven black and white photos of my life. No humans. No explanations. It’s a challenge issued on Facebook, and when my friend Mary Roberts invited me to participate, I couldn’t resist.

My subjects included fragments of the rural landscape, including old barns, an abandoned farmhouse and an ancient, ornate metal fence gracing the Garfield Township Cemetery. As I began to view the familiar in a whole new light, I was inspired by David Ottenstein, a Connecticut-based photographer who shared his work recently at the Blanden Memorial Art Museum in Fort Dodge.

Ottenstein has spent the past 13 years visiting Iowa to capture stunning black-and-white images of the countryside, many of which are showcased in his new book “Iowa: Echoes of a Vanishing Landscape.” I admit – art of why I attended his lecture involved a healthy dose of skepticism. What could an architectural photographer from the Northeast who is interested in “industrial decay” know about rural Iowa?

More than you’d think.

An insatiable curiosity and a desire to immerse yourself in a new culture can reveal profound insights that are easy for locals to overlook. I’m also convinced the medium is the message.

Not only does black and white photography require you to slow down and see the world in different way, as Ottenstein knows, but it reminds you of the countless shades of gray that add richness to the world around us. The magic of black and white:

– Lends a timeless quality. Not only does black and white help record traces of our history before it passes away, but it offers a powerful way to document the most timeless element of our rural culture-our connection to the land-and share a way of life that’s foreign to many Americans. Before he came to Iowa, Ottenstein’s only Midwest point of reference was the opening scene in The Wizard of Oz. “I was more than intrigued with the real Midwest and Iowa in particular,” said Ottenstein, who was on his 21st trip to Iowa when he spoke at the Blanden. “I fell in love with the place.”

– Challenges us to look beyond the obvious. A 2002 series of articles in the New York Times describing the Midwest’s changing ag economy inspired Ottenstein to photograph rural Iowa. From the time he first arrived in 2004 to document the loss of small, diversified farms, he found more than just decaying old structures in the countryside. He became acquainted with the people and inadvertently became an ambassador for Iowa. “A trip to Iowa is extremely educational for me,” he said. “I never imagined there would be another place I’d call home, but Iowa is my second home.”

– Invites us to engage on a deeper level. Black and white photography allows us to see what others do not. Suddenly we notice details that have always been there but often escape our view. Emphasizing these nuances exposes a whole new world that expands our understanding. “In the details, we see what’s left of people’s lives,” said Ottenstein, as he described his photos. “Even in the absence of people in a photo, we can understand and feel a lot about them.”

– Distills the essence and emotion of a scene. Capturing the true essence and emotion of a landscape demands an intimate knowledge of the place, a knowledge of what came before and what has changed. For a farmer, this knowledge comes from a lifetime on the land. For Ottenstein, this knowledge came from spending up to six weeks at a time with a home base in Grinnell. He thoroughly explored the surrounding counties of Poweshiek, Jasper, Tama and Marshall, with side trips to Guthrie County and beyond. Ottenstein often discovered that an Iowa farmhouse or barn he’d photographed months or years earlier had been torn down by the time he returned. “There’s no trace of them now,” he said. “Until you really know the area, you don’t feel that absence.”

– Speaks to a wide audience. Not only do people in Iowa get what Ottenstein is doing, but so do people back home. “It’s surprising how many people in the Northeast have a connection to farming, whether their grandparents farmed in the Midwest or the Shenandoah Valley,” Ottenstein said. “This rural culture is part of American history and is in all our DNA. We know it has value.”

Perhaps that’s the greatest value of sharing these stories through black and white images. We can do more than preserve echoes of a vanishing landscape. We can challenge ourselves and others to see rural Iowa in a new light and to engage, to think, to wonder.

Darcy Dougherty-Maulsby (a.k.a) Yetter-girl grew up on a Century Farm between Lake City and Yetter and is proud to call Calhoun County home.

Contact her at yettergirl@yahoo.com and visit her online at www.darcymaulsby.com.

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